If you only ever shopped at big supermarkets, you might be excused for thinking that there are only a few types of lettuce: iceberg, romaine, green leaf and red leaf. Produce departments with a little more diversity might have Oak or Butter leaf types.
Over the years, the market for whole head lettuce has dropped as packaged, washed salad mixes have become popular. But while that has been happening, lettuce breeders have also developed some wonderful new types of lettuce.
As you likely know, the big problem with “baby lettuce” is that if often has a soft, limp texture that does not hold up well to dressing. But full size lettuce leaves not only need to be washed, they must be cut or torn into bit-sized pieces.
Enter mini-lettuce, real heads of lettuce with leaves that don’t get very big. Little Gem romaine, which is in your boxes today, is probably the best known of these. The whole plant only grows about six inches tall, but develops a full head with leaves that are like full-sized romaine leaves in miniature.
Of course mini-lettuces are not quite as convenient for shoppers as ready-to-eat salad mixes. They still require careful washing followed by appropriate drying. But from a eating experience they are generally far superior, with a mixture of crunch and tenderness. They also have a much longer shelf life in your fridge.
Following the popularity of Little Gem, seed breeders have been releasing other varieties that look and taste like their bigger cousins. The mini-Red Oak lettuce you’ve gotten in your boxes from time to time is densely packed with bite- or two bite-sized leaves with all the flavor and texture you’d get from a full-sized head. We are also trying out a few Red Little Gems that you may see from time to time in your box. There’s even a mini-iceberg lettuce now, although we have not grown it so far.
Mini-lettuces grow more quickly than full-sized ones, and require less fertilizer, making them a better choice for organic farmers as well as more climate-resilient. A full-sized romaine head can take 4 months until ready for harvest; Little Gem takes only half that much time. Extreme shifts in temperature can lead to total crop loss by causing lettuce heads to bolt to seed or get bitter. The longer it takes them to grow, the more likely this is to happen. With our highly variable weather here, mini-heads provide a clear advantage. But as weather gets more extreme in all growing regions, even more farmers will recognize the benefits.
For us, small heads of lettuce also make it easier to portion out between our different size CSA boxes. A full-size head of lettuce can be more than one person needs or wants for a week. A Little Gem or other mini-head is a much more manageable size. Larger box sizes get two, or three heads.
Most retailers have been slow to adopt these new,
consumer-friendly head lettuces. If you are looking for them during TFF’s off-season for letttuce (June-September), your best bet would be to head to the farmers market. You could also try encouraging your local produce market to carry them, if they don’t already. I think they will eventually replace standard lettuce entirely as more and more people discover them, and as the changing climate makes it more difficult to grow traditional varieties.
Mini-lettuce has been a big win for us, and we hope it’s a win for you as well.